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Should sub-four be no more?

The advancement of super shoes and the responsiveness of Boston University's track has seen hundreds of runners break the four-minute barrier. Is it as illustrious as it used to be?

Photo by: Kevin Morris

Over the weekend at Boston University’s David Hemery Valentine Invitational, 52 runners went sub-four in the men’s mile, including five Canadians: Cameron Proceviat, Matthew Beaudet, Charlie Dannatt, Alec Purnell and Foster Malleck. With the advancement of super shoes and the responsiveness of the Boston indoor track, the sub-four-minute mile is still impressive, but is it as remarkable as it used to be?

Canadian indoor mile record holder Cameron Proceviat in the men’s mile at Boston University in 2019. Photo: Kevin Morris

Last week, Track and Field News, a database that has kept track of sub-four miles since Roger Bannister became the first man to break the barrier in 1954, announced it would no longer update its chronological list of runners who break the barrier. The site released a statement: “The advent of super-shoes has bombarded the 4:00 barrier into something no longer relevant for tracking, although many new members would have made it even without high-tech footwear.”

According to an article in Outside, the original decision to scrap the list was based on the (non-scientific) belief that the sub-four stat had lost popularity. In a later article, Track and Field News editor Garry Hill told Outside: “In retrospect, I now think the opposite might be true, as modern shoes/tracks/training have combined to make a shot at a sub-4:00 now a reasonable goal for a lot more people.”

At the 2023 Millrose Games in NYC, U.S. Olympian Yared Nuguse ran the second-fastest mile in history, clocking 3:47.38, a new North American record, and only milliseconds off the indoor mile world record of 3:47.01. The American track and field community celebrated the mark, but faster times also bring quicker standards and higher expectations.

American record holder and 3:47-miler Yared Nuguse at the 2023 John Terrier Classic at Boston University. Photo: Kevin Morris

In the past five years, shoe technology and track surfaces have changed, and running must adapt with it. The Boston University track, which was built in 2002, is unusual in that it was built to the maximum allowable specifications (in terms of the surface, the 18.5-degree steepness of the banked turns); it is considered one of the best tracks in the world for middle distance runners chasing fast times.

And while these super spikes bring faster times, what are the athletes supposed to do? Buy old shoes to simulate Bannister’s iconic 1954 race with leather spikes on a cinder track?

As mile times for elite middle-distance runners now stray into the high-3:40s and low-3:50s, the sub-four mile matters less and less; but, like breaking three hours for a marathon or 20-minutes for a 5K, any competitive distance runners will always want their mile time to start with a three. That will never change.

After an online uproar, Track and Field News relented and said they would continue to keep track of sub-four-milers in their database. To this day, it is still a feat only 75 Canadian men have accomplished (indoor and outdoor)—enough to fill a school bus. No matter how many runners break four, it will always be a barrier many will chase.

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